The values that John Knowles emphasizes in A Separate Peace reveal his belief that an appreciation of nature’s wonders is fundamental to a life of moral integrity and spiritual satisfaction. Consequently, the novel is set in the beautiful countryside of New England, not far from the Atlantic coastline at a New Hampshire prep school called Devon. The year is 1942, and the United States is increasing its involvement in World War II. The early reverses the Allies suffer seem to imperil the very values of Western civilization. The war is presented first as a distant source of uneasiness, but its presence gradually grows into an emblem of the encroachment of the adult world’s most mundane elements onto an unspoiled realm of youth and beauty.
That realm lies within the protected sanctuary of the school, a place of privilege run by quasi-British masters who espouse “continuity” but have ceased to provide the inspirational energy that keeps tradition vital. Although Knowles admires the school’s overall aims and holds it in higher esteem than he does most other institutions in American life, he also recognizes its tendencies to mold and limit its students, draining them of the creativity and spontaneity that make life so vivid for his exceptional, artistic, and slightly eccentric characters. Still, in the “gypsy summer” that produces the book’s freest and happiest moments, it is the school grounds, glowing like a marvelous garden of Eden, that provide the setting for the idyll that precedes the “fall” into the “real” world. Knowles sees this moment in history, this place in the country, as the last vestige of a vanishing era, and the school’s location on the banks of two rivers-the clean, pure Devon and the “turbid, saline Nagaumsett”-illustrates its pivotal place at a turning point in time.